Summits on the Air: Dispatches from a society of mountaintop radio operators

Summits on the Air: Dispatches from a society of mountaintop radio operators

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By Nick Belcaster

Tim Nair on the summit of Carne Mountain. Photos courtesy of Tim Nair.

The first time I spoke to Tim Nair his voice came in over my handheld radio, hailing me through the static. “Summit to summit, summit to summit, this is KG7EJT on  Mt. Fremont, calling KE7RVG.” I was standing on the 6,650-foot summit of North Twin Sister fidgeting around with my radio and sighted down the Cascade Range, stretching south in a breaking set of whitecaps, toward Mt. Rainier and its sub-peaks – Mt. Fremont included – on the horizon. He’s transmitting from way over there? 

I was astounded. Not only were six AA batteries powering his booming voice 125 miles with clarity, but it was doing it all without a cell signal. As remote as I was, I could whip up a friendly conversation with another climber. I was hooked. My new brand of fun had a name: SOTA or Summits on the Air.

As somewhat of a local authority on the practice, Nair sums it up well: “SOTA is a contest where one takes radio equipment to a list of designated summits, and tries to make contact with people around the country and the world for fun.” Certain mountain peaks are assigned a point value based on how accessible and technical they are, and radio operators can “activate” them by making four contacts from the summit.

The minimum requirement is a technician level amateur radio license from the FCC, which requires an exam. “The good news is you don’t need to know anything like Morse code, and you can even get an app to help you study for the test,” Nair says. With $15 and a good test score later, you’re fully licensed. Then once you’ve got your own radio, which can be had for as cheap as $30, you’re set to head up to the hills and begin making contacts of your own.

Nick Belcaster photo.

So if it’s a contest, what’s the prize?

“The Mountain Goat award,” Nair says. “It’s the award you’re eligible to claim once you’ve reached 1,000 activator points.” That’s a lot of summits, and Nair just recently became the first in Washington state to make it. By going out nearly every weekend Nair has gained a small following of “chasers,” or those who attempt to talk to him while he’s on a summit. Not only does Nair get a kick out of it, but many non-climbers get to enjoy the action second hand.

As a backcountry communication tool, amateur or ham radios are rarely seen in the hands of your average recreationalist. Normally my radio sits in the bottom of my pack as a last resort: a way to call for emergency help without cell signal or to listen for a weather forecast. Nair came to carry an amateur radio much the same way I did – as an emergency communication tool. A few years ago he was leading a YMCA hike in the Goat Rocks Wilderness when another group had an accident. Nair performed CPR on the victim, but needed to get a call out for help.

“Everybody had their cellphones out, but not one person could get any kind of cell signal or text out,” Nair says. “We were all frantic, we knew the guy needed help but nobody could get any coverage.” This incident led Nair to explore other options, and eventually had him carrying a handheld amateur radio on all his hiking trips. With a small antenna and a list of radio repeaters in the area, Nair could get a call out just about anywhere.

“I get a lot of compliments from so many people that say that the whole Summits on the Air thing adds so much to the hobby,” Nair says. “It gives them something interesting to talk about and lets them imagine being there.”

Since my first activation on North Twin I’ve talked with Canadians on the Gulf Islands from Yellow Aster Butte, and chatted with a fellow atop Hurricane Ridge from a North Cascades lookout tower. Pulling out my radio to see who I can reach has become part of my summit celebration. Geeky? Undeniably yes. But it’s some goofy fun that might just save your bacon one day.

 

Nick Belcaster is a Bellingham writer who traverses the Pacific Northwest on rack, rope, skins and boot tread – an ice axe in one hand and a fly rod in the other.